Monday, January 28, 2008

Cave Tours

Saturday I was planning on going on the chapter ride, but I checked the website in the morning to find it had been cancelled due to weather. I thought that was odd because the forecast was clear and warm, at least for later in the day. When the road captain saw on Friday the forecast for 10am Saturday (the scheduled departure time) was foggy and 40 degrees, he cancelled the ride. I went to the shop anyway to see if maybe it had been un-cancelled or if other people showed up and wanted to ride. A couple chapter members did show up, and some other road captains were going to do a preride for next weekend. I decided I wouldn't go with them and instead go to see a couple of caves and test out my new Canon A720is camera in the real world, in a challenging environment.
Natural BridgeIt was still cold and foggy, so I put on my face mask, and I already had my chaps and heavy gloves. I buzzed down I35, then down FM 3009 to Natural Bridge Caverns. I arrived just past 11 and bought a combo ticket for both the north cavern and the Jaremy room, which are completely separate tours. First was the north cavern tour, which left at 11:15. The tour group was pretty large- about 25 people. The tour starts at the natural sink hole entrance, which is a large collapsed cave room with one thin bridge remaining, which gives the place its name. I started at the front of the group, but as I stopped to take pictures people would pass me, so eventually I was near the back. I was taking pictures either in "night snapshot" mode, with the flash for handheld shots; and "shutter priority" mode, where I specified the exposure (I started at 1 second, but changed that some depending on what its meter said for aperture) and turned off the flash using my "gorillapod" flexible segmented mini tripod. The problem with the tripod is that my new camera is a little too heavy for it- some times it was fine, other times it started to droop, ruining the picture. I had to set it for a delay in order that my hands would be totally off of it and it would stop shaking, however this makes it beep while counting down, which was a bit distracting at times. I set up the tripod either on a wall or wrapped it around a railing, the former being a bit more stable as the tripod tended to rotate on railings. Depending on the setting, it would sometimes be a while after taking a shot before it was ready to shoot again, which wasn't a problem in general but was a minor inconvenience at times. The flash shots in general turned out pretty well, at least after I cleaned the fog off the lens that formed at the beginning of the tour. I find, however, that it never looks the same with the flash as it does under the artificial lights in the cave. The tripod pictures that weren't blurred by motion turned out pretty well in general, but a lot of them weren't quite right. In the future I'll have to experiment with setting the aperture and shutter speed manually in order to get the exposure I want.
Natural Bridge Caverns formationsThe cave itself was pretty nice- it has a lot of nice large formations and several fairly large rooms. I believe they said it has the largest room of any cave in Texas. Of course it pales in comparison to Carlsbad Caverns, but it's still fairly impressive. They have some very tall columns, the largest being 50 feet tall as well as a really tall stalagmite and lots of other typical formations. The entire tour is about a half mile, mostly sloped concrete pathway and one long bridge over Purgatory Creek. The tour ends climbing up a collapsed dome, the top of which gives a nice look down back into the cave, and out a blasted passage to the surface. I had a hot dog, chips and a drink when I got back to the commissary about 12:30 while waiting for my 1pm Jaremy tour. The second tour group was smaller- 15 people including two young boys. There was no natural opening to the Jaremy room, it was found by exploratory drilling on the guess that the north cavern wasn't the only one in the area. The name comes from the first two letters of the first three people to explore the room. Later they found a second room by further drilling and jackhammered a passage between the two. Formations above the passage precluded the use of dynamite. The Jaremy room tour isn't as long as the north cavern, but it's much steeper, 180 steps 175 feet down. One nice effect in the Jaremy room was that the lights came on in stages, starting at the deepest part and progressing up. Since the conditions are different, the formations are different from the north cavern- there are more soda straws and smaller formations. I also liked the "diamond river," flowstone with a lot of crystals. At the bottom of the second room, the tour ends with a blackout. The end of the regular tour is the start of the adventure tour, which I may go back and do later this year. The way out is to climb back up the 180 stairs the same way we came in. Back on the surface about 2 it was sunny and warm. I rode to Cave Without a Name without chaps and my lighter gloves. Riding on 474 north out of Boerne I got stuck behind two trucks which were behind two slow-moving motorcycles, so that kinda sucked. The cave has a lot less signage, unlike Natural Bridge's multiple interstate and other billboards, but I didn't have any trouble finding it. The parking lot was gravel with not many cars. It was just past 3 and I was glad when the guy at the register said there was a tour leaving in a couple minutes, not knowing that he would be the guide. I used the restroom and joined an older couple and a family of four outside the cave entrance.
Cave Without A Name SinkholeThe entrance to the cave is a winding ramp and staircase blasted around the natural sinkhole that led to the discovery of the cave. About 60 feet below the surface there is a lot of soot stains from when the sinkhole was used to house a still during prohibition. At the bottom of the stairs, ducking under an opening blasted near a natural opening, it was immediately very humid and a bit warmer. It was so humid you could see a fog in some of the lights and my flash reflected off of it, messing up my first pictures. The first area is a large room with a flat floor, the guide saying the gravel floor is over a layer of mud as much as 8 feet deep. The formations in the cave were generally dark, with not much pure white calcite. Because of the flatness, there were no walls and few railings to attach my tripod, so I was mostly shooting with a flash. A second large room was not foggy and had a couple railings so I did manage to get a few decent photos. We continued on through a few more smaller rooms and stopped at an underground river, where we turned around and went back the way we came in. The guide told some interesting recent stories- the owner's son drowned exploring the river; vandals took a baseball bat to whatever formations they could; a tornado hit last year while a group was inside, the power went out and the guide's flashlight went dead. The ride home was nice, but that area is full of cedar trees. I didn't feel my allergy coming on real bad there, but I could definitely smell the trees and feel the initial effects. It was only after I was home that it really started to hit me, making my eyes red and completely closing my nasal passages.
Sunday after some rollerblading in the morning I went on a charity ride benefiting the family of a young man who worked at the Harley shop and was killed in a motorcycle accident just before New Year's. There was a really good turnout- over 200 bikes. We were escorted by four uniformed Travis County officers on motorcycles with lights and sirens, but only one was an actual sheriff's motorcycle. I have no idea to the legality of them blocking intersections, since most of the ride was in Hays and Bastrop counties, cutting through a bit of Caldwell County. It was a nice route, but of course we were going well below the speed limit. The ride ended at Cindy's Gone Hog Wild, with a live auction and door prizes. I hung out there until about 4:30, then rode straight home and vegetated for the rest of the night.

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